[Screen It]


(1998) (Harvey Keitel, Andie MacDowell) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Heavy Minor Moderate Minor None
Mild None Minor None Moderate
Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: A dirt-poor, Depression era family tries to help a 99-year-old former slave return to his birthplace so that he can be buried there upon his imminent death.
As an adult narrator (voice of MARTIN SHEEN) looks back on an event in his boyhood in 1935 Virginia, we see that ten-year-old Paul Whitehurst (SCOTT TERRA) is an only child growing up with his parents, Bill and Pauline (DARREL LARSON & DEBORAH HEDWALL), the latter of whom is terminally ill.

Seeking refuge from the stuffy confines of his upper-middle class home, Paul likes to hang out with the Dabneys, a large, but impoverished, white trash family who once had wealth in their lineage long before the Great Depression wiped clean what was left of it. With his best friend being "Little Mole" (DANIEL TREAT) and having a boyhood crush on older daughter, Edmonia (MONICA BUGAJSKI), Paul enjoys spending time at the Dabney home despite nearly everyone else's objections to their pungent body odor problems.

Spending several days with the family when his mother and father have to leave town for a funeral, Paul, along with Little Mole, are surprised when they see an elderly man watching them play marbles. They soon learn that he's Shadrach (JOHN FRANKLIN SAWYER), a 99-year-old former slave and sharecropper who, sensing his quickly approaching mortality, has walked from Alabama to Virginia hoping to die and be buried on his childhood land.

Although they're just as surprised about all of this, Vernon (HARVEY KEITEL), a moonshine bootlegger, and his wife Trixie (ANDIE MacDOWELL) gather up Paul and some of the kids and head off to the former plantation where they plan to wait for Shadrach to die and then bury him. When the local sheriff shows up and informs them that such a burial is now illegal, however, the Dabneys must decide whether to obey the law or grant Shadrach's dying wish.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast, it's highly unlikely.
For language and brief sexuality.
  • HARVEY KEITEL plays the proud, but often angry patriarch of the Dabney family, a man who for unknown reasons wants to help Shadrach when he's not cursing a great deal or selling his bootleg booze.
  • ANDIE MacDOWELL plays his wife, a loving woman who happens to be an alcoholic.
  • JOHN FRANKLIN SAWYER plays the 99-year-old man who's returned home hoping to be buried on his childhood soil.
  • SCOTT TERRA plays the 10-year-old, upper-middle class boy who's a decent kid.


    OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
    Wasting what could have been an intriguing look at two distinct, and bygone eras through two polar opposite characters, "Shadrach" may be well-intentioned, but its stymied direction, writing, and occasional overacting -- not to mention general disinterest in the overall plot line -- will prevent it from ever finding a theatrical audience.

    Destined for an ultra quick trip to the video shelves, the film plays out like one of those elegantly staged, sepia-bathed Hallmark TV productions, although in comparison, it pales even to them.

    First-time director Susanna Styron, who's adapting the short story penned by her father, William, some two decades ago, succeeds at getting the look and feel of the Depression era right, but that's about it. With brief, but tedious and too "on the nose" voice over narration (supplied by actor Martin Sheen attempting a Virginia drawl), Styron hopes to give the film an old-fashioned, down homey feel. Beyond the poor family's language, she's mostly succeeded.

    In doing so, however, she's unfortunately forgotten to include some much needed conflict and overall drama to make the proceedings halfway interesting. While the story is initially intriguing, the plot element of an old man coming home to die and be buried in the land on which he was born is about as exciting as it sounds or ultimately gets.

    Although a local sheriff's refusal to allow that burial to take place provides some welcomed, albeit limited conflict, it's not enough to keep the viewer from wondering whether they left their headlights on in the parking lot or pondering about the freshness of the popcorn sold in the lobby.

    A great deal of that stems from the massive amounts of squandered material. Despite having the movie named for him, we know very little of the titular character. Consequently, a treasure trove of potential source material -- let alone more substantial flashbacks -- slips right through Styron's hands.

    Shadrach's ninety-nine years of life experiences -- especially from the era in which they occurred -- would seemingly be of great interest not only to the audience, but also to the young characters who have quickly grown fond of their new, near centenarian friend.

    Yet Styron, who cowrote the screenplay adaption with Bridget Terry, keeps Shadrach an enigma, a weathered shell of a man about whom we're told very little. The fact that he was a slave, a sharecropper, and outlived everyone in his family is briefly explored in limited, observational flashbacks, but we never get to know his character.

    Not only is the lack of substantial and sustained flashbacks to his life a complete waste, but they would have nicely complemented young Paul's experiences growing up in a society still feeling the effects of segregation and class differences.

    Instead, the film is more interested in presenting the former slave's sudden effect on that poor, Depression era family, but even that is bungled and comes off as uninteresting and subpar. It initially appears that Styron seemingly wants to explore the class differences between Paul's family and the poor Dabneys around whom the boy's more comfortable spending his time. Yet beyond the aforementioned narration, such elements are quickly abandoned.

    What we're left with for the rest of the movie is Harvey Keitel and his clan taking Shadrach on a long trip -- and then a long wait -- for him to eventually die. Along the way he messes his pants, Keitel brews some moonshine, and the local sheriff drops by and oddly seems more interested in preventing Shadrach's burial than in Vernon's moonshine business, but that's about it. Even the "big" payoff twist at the end is telegraphed so much that it's doubtful many will be surprised by it.

    Although the topic of dying is ever present and the film occasionally touches on the thematic elements of that -- it's never done in much of an interesting fashion. While the kids are realistically scared to go into the house after the old man dies, the film squanders away the whole concept with its lackadaisical approach.

    All of which is a shame. A ten-year-old boy's curiosity about death, this old man and his amazing life story should be busting at the seams, but we never see much of that, nor does he pose many questions to others concerning such matters.

    Instead, Styron seems more fixated on a Mickey Mouse pocket watch that Shadrach carries -- something I'm not sure even existed in 1935 -- a mere seven years after Mickey's debut in a cartoon short and long before the Studio's glory years. While the piece is presumably symbolic, it's really only later used as what's supposed to be a touching return gift scene. Unfortunately, that, and most every other similar scene fail to work simply because we have no emotional involvement in the characters or their predicament.

    The strongest performance -- mainly by default -- comes from Andie MacDowell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Multiplicity") as the caring, complacent, and alcoholic mother. Although she isn't given much leeway with which to do much regarding her character, MacDowell creates a believable enough persona.

    The often volatile characterizations presented by Harvey Keitel ("Reservoir Dogs," "Cop Land") are also present in this film, but his character's dialogue is often so stilted, and his motivation so questionable, that the effect he's striving for is lessened. While we understand why he's so bitter toward the world -- many unemployed people during that era were -- we're never quite sure why Vernon suddenly becomes so obsessed with burying Shadrach -- other than his stilted "it's the principle of the matter" reaction -- and thus much of his behavior is often unbelievable.

    Meanwhile, newcomer John Franklin Sawyer as the title character is good and creates a sympathetic character, but one only wishes we were allowed to know more about him and have him recount his many varied tales of a century of life. Fellow novice Scott Terra is also good in his role as the young protagonist, although much of what we learn about him comes from the voice over narration instead of his acting.

    Lacking any substantial plot, conflict, or overall drama, the film is all mood and appearance with not much underneath its antiquated shine. As such, and as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" too easily and unfortunately proved, Southern mood alone can't carry a film, let alone make it good.

    Although the semblances of a decent and compelling story lurk about the sweet-natured plot, they're never allowed to break through and make this an intriguing or even compelling story. While it's readily apparent what the film is trying to do, it simply doesn't succeed despite its best intentions and quaint period setting. We give "Shadrach" a 3.5 out of 10.

    Although it's questionable how many kids will want to see this film, here's a quick look at its content. Profanity is moderate with 5 "s" words, but also at least 40 uses of "G-damn" for those concerned with that. A boy witnesses the brief to and fro rocking of a car caused by a sexual encounter inside (although he doesn't see anymore than we do -- the rocking car, the woman's legs out the window, and then her pulling down her dress upon exiting the car).

    We also see the bare butts of several boys as they go skinny dipping, and the kids find a used condom in the backseat of a car. The father of the poor family makes and sells moonshine, while the mother is an alcoholic (she's rarely seen without a beer in her hand).

    Set in the 1930's and referring back to even older eras, some of the characters have racist attitudes, some segregation is witnessed, and the overall theme of dying and death give the film some strong thematic elements. If you're concerned about someone in your home seeing this film, we suggest that you take a closer look at the content that we've listed.

  • Vernon is a bootlegger (illegally selling booze), and we see several shots of the still, as well as of him and others drinking or buying his product.
  • Trixie is an alcoholic and often has a beer in her hand (including in the morning) during the film.
  • Vernon gives Shadrach a drink from his flask and then drinks some himself.
  • In a flashback, some relatives of Shadrach's have drinks at a picnic.
  • The characters in the film occasionally refer to the Dabney's collective body odor problems, and later we hear that Shadrach has messed his pants and we see everyone's continued reaction to the strong smell.
  • Although neither bloody nor gory, we do see several views of a dead man's body.
  • Some viewers may find Vernon repeatedly spewing profanities, which have now been picked up by his kids, as having both types of attitude.
  • Some guys in a passing truck briefly yell at Shadrach to get out of the road.
  • Paul's parents are a bit uncomfortable allowing Paul to play with the Dabney kids and stay with them for several days (since they see the white trash family as somewhat below them).
  • Although trying to make ends meet, Vernon illegally makes and sells moonshine (breaking the law).
  • Despite wanting to help Shadrach, Vernon still has some brief, racist beliefs and makes a comment about "niggers" always being the "problem," and another man refers to Shadrach as a "coon."
  • Younger kids may be unsettled by Shadrach's death, his dead body that remains in the house, a scene where his hand suddenly flops from his chest, and Paul tentatively wandering through the house after hearing the noise of that.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Nigger" and "Coon" (for black people), "Piss poor," "Piss pot," "Kiss my ass," "Shut up," "Bastards," and "To hell in a handbasket."
  • Trixie throws an empty beer bottle into a river (littering).
  • Paul and Little Mole go skinny dipping.
  • None.
  • A tiny bit of such music occurs when Paul tentatively wanders through a house after Shadrach has died.
  • None.
  • At least 5 "s" words, 11 hells, 10 S.O.B.'s, 9 asses (1 used with "hole"), 8 damns, and at least 40 uses of "G-damn," 5 of "Jesus Christ," 2 of "Christ Almighty," and 1 use each of "Christ," "Oh Lord," and "Christ have mercy" as exclamations.
  • Paul goes to the Dabney's home where he walks past and watches an old car rocking back and forth (with some muted sexual sounds and the woman's legs hanging out the window) and later sees a woman come from the car pulling down her dress.
  • We see the beginnings of Edmonia's breasts through her thin and wet dress after she's been baptized.
  • Paul and some of the Dabney kids find a used condom in the back of the car during their trip out to the Dabney farm.
  • We see Paul and Little Mole's bare butts as they go skinny dipping, and see ever brief glimpses of what appears to be one of their scrotums (from behind and while swinging on a rope).
  • Trixie smokes several times during the movie, and a man with Vernon holds a pipe in one scene.
  • Paul realizes his mother is ill (she coughs a lot) and the narrator tells us at the end that his mother died two years later.
  • Death and dying.
  • What Shadrach must have seen and experienced throughout his long life -- slavery, the Civil War, being a sharecropper, etc...
  • The Great Depression.
  • Segregation -- there's talk about different funerals for blacks than whites, there's a "whites only" outhouse, we see black children having to sit in the balcony of a movie theater, etc...
  • Vernon slaps his older son on the back of his head to get him moving.

  • Reviewed October 9, 1998

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